Why every AI start-up should be managing their impact

Natalie Tucker, Impact Manager, Social Tech Trust

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Anne Radl, Development Manager at Social Tech Trust with 2019 Microsoft AI for Good Cohort

As Microsoft’s AI for Good programme attests, artificial intelligence and machine learning hold enormous potential for social impact, but how can AI start-ups understand and capitalise on this opportunity?

“Impact management” is about measuring both the positive and negative effects of our work on people and the planet, then — critically — using these insights to inform decisions that maximise the positive and minimise the negative. As well as helping start-ups to take advantage of the opportunities presented by AI for good, impact management can be an invaluable tool for managing the perceived risks associated with AI, building understanding of its remarkable potential, and helping to reduce fear of this often misunderstood technology.

So, what can AI start-ups put in place from the very outset of their journey to make sure they are managing their impact? Here are three simple steps:

Step 1. Work towards the future you want to see; define the change that your technology can create in the world, and use this as your guide. Participants on the 2019 AI for Good programme explored this in a workshop with New Philanthropy Capital, focused on “Theory of Change”. A Theory of Change [1] sets out how you believe your activities will lead to the outcomes and impacts you want to achieve. It is against this clear vision that you can start to measure your impact.

[1] www.thinknpc.org_wp-content_uploads_2019_10_Theory-of-Change-10-Steps-Updated.pdf

Step 2. Talk to your users — all of them — understand their perspectives, the outcomes they experience, or want to experience, from your product or service, and what those outcomes mean to them. As this year’s AI for Good cohort learnt in their user engagement workshop with CAST, as in any business, better understanding your customers can only help you better serve their needs, and ultimately your profits.

Step 3. Iterate based on your insights, tweak and improve your product in relation to what it means to your users, continually increasing its value to them. It’s worth bearing in mind here that, rather than focusing on your “average” user, building your understanding of those whose needs might differ from the norm can prove particularly insightful. Voice recognition technology for example, was originally developed for people with visual impairments, but now has far wider applications, such as in smart home assistants like Google Home, and in the development of self-driving cars.

Reflecting on her impact management journey, 2019 AI for Good participant and CEO of ThermaFY, Amanda Pickford said:

“It has fundamentally changed our business. We were creating great features and functionality for the user of our product, but during the programme we drilled down on our customer, this highlighted that their needs were different to our users. We have now developed a much more robust business that addresses the needs of both our customers and their customers (users). But more importantly this programme also made us focus on the wider societal and environmental impacts our software will have. This has completely changed the narrative of our business and I think this is why we are now seeing greater traction.”

So, whilst the primary motive for impact management may be accountability — understanding and managing the effects we have on others — the flipside of this, as Ben Carpenter, CEO of Social Value UK, would argue, is innovation. Ultimately, AI start-ups that manage their impact will be gathering invaluable insights that enable them to continually innovate, develop better products and services, and grow their business.

Social Tech Trust is working in partnership with Microsoft to co-develop and deliver the AI for Good programme which helps purpose-driven ventures in the UK advance their AI solutions to create positive social transformation.

Next year’s programme will run for four months from January 2020, creating a cohort of like-minded peers and giving participants the opportunity to learn from resident experts at Microsoft, Social Tech Trust, and other selected partners, about topics including:

Business development; business fundamentals, commercial strategy, and raising funds.

AI and tech; AI fundamentals e.g. AI ethical principles, cognitive services essentials and machine learning deep dives.

Social impact; social transformation, genuine user engagement, managing impact.

Apply now for AI for Good 2020 : https://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/business/ai-for-good/

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Tech’s potential to change lives is greatest when it’s driven by social transformation. We explore the social issues where tech can help transform lives.

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